Documentary highlights Black hair discrimination in schools

‘Policing Joy,’ a documentary on Black hair discrimination, will premier at JxJ Film Festival on March 6 in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Tracey Renee’

Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer

The soon-to-premiere short documentary “Policing Joy” explores the treatment of Black women and girls in school and highlights the issue of hair discrimination.

The film will premiere at JxJ Film Festival in Washington D.C. on March 6 and will play at the fifth annual Los Angeles Black Film Festival. 

VCU education professor Danielle Apugo, who wrote and produced “Policing Joy,” said her experience in the education world, both as a K-12 teacher and as a college professor, played a role in her involvement in the film. 

“I’ve always been interested in Black hair, Black culture and what it means to be Black in America,” Apugo said. “I was interested in how it collides in certain spaces. What about us causes such tension?”

Hair discrimination is the regulation and prevention of natural hairstyles, like afros, braids and locs, to remove Black individuals from schools and the workplace, according to the NAACP’s website

Often times, these discriminatory practices present themselves in the form of dress codes seeking to prevent “distractions” in the education environment and leading to higher suspension rates of Black women and girls, according to NPR.

Apugo said she drew inspiration from her own experiences with her natural hair and considers herself to be an “OG naturalista,” wearing her natural hair since 2007. This was prior to the increased prevalence of the natural hair in the Black community brought about by a natural hair movement on social media, according to an Atlanta University Center study.

“In that process of wearing my natural hair, I noticed immediately it affected the way that people treated me,” Apugo said. “I was departing from the norm of straight, silky hair and the style that evokes a certain kind of aesthetic.”

Apugo said she hopes the film serves as an educational opportunity for non-Black viewers.

“Resources like this are really important because they are accessible and they can deliver a large amount of information in a small punch,” Apugo said. “We need more of these resources that spark ideas that lead to conversations.”

The film features interviews from those who have experienced hair discrimination to Black hair specialists, education specialists and other experts, such as psychologist and hairdresser Afiya Mbilishaka. She and Apugo previously published an article titled “Brushed Aside,” which focused on hair discrimination experiences of Black girls in K-12 schools. 

“I would hope that Black girls watching this film would recognize that there is a system of racism and oppression that is targeting them and attacking their beauty,” Mbilishaka said. “It becomes our job as Black women and girls to disrupt that system.”

Mbilishaka said she hopes the documentary brings a new sense of understanding for its non-Black viewers.

“I’m hoping that people can have awareness and knowledge around the daily policing that Black people have to go through from childhood,” Mbilishaka said. “There are significant physical and psychological consequences that we face from going through these experiences that mainstream America doesn’t recognize.”

Film poster showcases documentary ‘Policing Joy’ by Tracey Renee. Photo courtesy of Tracey Renee

The film’s director, Tracey Renee’, said she was drawn to the project because of its ability to give young Black girls the vocabulary to talk about their experiences with hair discrimination. 

“I think the message is important to get out to little Black girls who probably can’t communicate what is happening to them,” Renee’ said. “We want to let them know that these things do happen but they can protect themselves and that they are beautiful.”

Renee’ will talk at the film’s screening in Washington D.C. on March 6, according to the documentary’s Instagram.

“‘Policing Joy’ has an opportunity to reach a wider audience and spark conversations of awareness and what is going on with hair discrimination,” Renee’ said. “It can create awareness for young Black girls that loving their features is essential and not to let society feel otherwise.”

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